Senior immigration official struck down by Cape judges after Ethiopian asylum seeker attempts suicide

  • An Ethiopian asylum seeker, who does not speak English, claims he was tricked into paying a guilty plea fine by a top immigration official when he thought he was paying bail.
  • Two Western Cape High Court judges have condemned the officer’s “deplorable” conduct, quashed the fine and ordered that the immigration officer be removed from the case.
  • Tsegaye Esyas claims that Annelise van Dyk treated him like an animal, which led to him trying to commit suicide while in police custody.

A senior immigration official has come under fire for her “deplorable” behavior in handling the case of an Ethiopian national who attempted suicide after being tricked into confessing he was in South Africa illegally, according to GroundUp.

Western Cape High Court judges James Lekhuleni and Patricia Goliath quashed the guilty plea paid by Tsegaye Esyas and ordered that he be repaid the R1,000.

They referred the case back to the Paarl Magistrate’s Court to be heard by another magistrate “so that he could receive a fair trial” with a competent interpreter, and ordered that the immigration officer, Annelise van Dyk, be removed from the case.

“This type of conduct by a senior government official is abhorrent and reprehensible to the expected tenets and qualities of someone in her position and to the Batho Pele principles,” the judges said.

Esyas has filed an urgent request to cancel the guilty plea fine he paid on April 10 this year.

The papers were served on the magistrate who first heard his case and on Van Dyk, but they did not oppose the application, leaving Esyas’ version of events unchallenged.

Read the verdict here.

Lekhuleni, who wrote the verdict, said Esyas was an Ethiopian citizen who did not speak English.

He arrived in South Africa earlier this year, fleeing his native country due to political unrest.

Esyas came to seek asylum and be with his two brothers and other relatives, all of whom were properly documented.

In his affidavit, he explained his efforts to begin the process of obtaining his own documentation.

Esyas said the first time he was turned away because the system was offline.

He went back a few days later, but was told that only the first 24 asylum seekers were being processed each day.

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The next day, Esyas slept on the sidewalk outside the offices to be part of the first 24. However, they were all rejected due to load shedding.

In the meantime, he got work as a “cash register operator” in a store.

Before Esyas could return to the immigration offices for the fourth time, he and his employer were arrested.

He appeared in court, but the case was postponed for about a week for an interpreter. When he appeared in court again on April 10, there was still no interpreter present.

Esyas said he couldn’t understand what happened, but the case continued.

‘Seemingly misled’

He added that Van Dyk left the courtroom and approached his family asking if they had money to pay bail, which his brother confirmed.

She then instructed his brother to stay out of the courtroom.

Later, his brother accompanied a police officer to the cash register and paid R1,000, believing it was bail.

However, when he returned to the courtroom with the receipt, he was told that Van Dyk had taken Esyas and that he would remain in custody.

The police officer said the money was not for bail, but for a fine for pleading guilty, and that Van Dyk could now keep him in custody pending deportation.

The family believed they had been ‘blatantly misled’ by her.

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Esyas said Van Dyk took him out of the police cell and took him to her office, where she was “extremely hostile and racist towards him”, treated him like an animal and tried to force him to sign documents he did not understand.

Lekhuleni said:

When the applicant returned to the police cell, he felt that he had no choice. He thought his life was now in custody until he was sent back to the political turmoil in Ethiopia, and that made his life not worth living.

“There was no one to listen to his plight. He tried to hang himself. However, the police officials caught him trying to commit suicide and he was subsequently shifted to an isolated cell and placed under suicide watch,” he added.

However, Van Dyk continued to insist that he sign the documents.

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“The applicant’s lawyer also spoke to police officers at Paarl police station, who confirmed that Ms Van Dyk’s behavior was a normal occurrence.

“He was told that she treats people this way to threaten and humiliate them,” Lekhuleni said.

He added that it was difficult to fathom on what basis the magistrate was satisfied that Esyas was pleading guilty when he could not understand the proceedings or communicate with the court, saying this was “highly irregular”.

Lekhuleni said:

There is no doubt that the applicant did not understand it, as the procedure was not explained in a language he understands. In my opinion, this irregularity is so gross that it has affected the entire procedure.

As for Van Dyk, he added that the allegations against her were “so egregious” that it was surprising that they had not been challenged at all.

“Her conduct, as explained by the applicant, is deplorable and must be condemned.

“It is alleged that she treated the applicant with contempt and inhumanity, so much so that this led to his suicide attempt.

“It is also alleged that she is doing this to force immigrants to sign documents under duress… in my opinion, Ms. Van Dyk should be warned to desist from such unacceptable behavior,” Lekhuleni said.